Engaging in feedback conversations well is a vital part of leading others successfully toward desired results. But leaders rarely do it enough.

Recently I wrote a series of posts on development theory and how leaders grow to become better at leadership. One of the leading experts on developmental stage theory is William Torbert, business school professor, who has done a lot of research showing how the more developmentally advanced a leader is, the more success they have in business results.

According to Torbert, the most important feature of high-performing teams in times of change is their use of feedback. In study after study, a team’s excellence rests on its ability to constantly give and receive high quality feedback.

Team members learn high quality feedback skills by observing their leaders. Leaders who react defensively in the face of feedback fail to learn what they need to know to make successful adjustments AND they model poor habits to their people. Such leaders send a message to others that it’s okay to be defensive, it’s okay to not listen. They don’t demonstrate the benefits from engaging in feedback conversations that explore the issues.

From what I observe in my work in companies, this is a major reason why good feedback conversations are rare. When people see their superiors failing to listen and learn from difficult conversations, they don’t learn how to navigate the rough waters of feedback conversations.

Such conversations are never easy. Here’s what I see happening: our observations and opinions come to us all tangled up. It’s hard to separate facts from judgments and abstractions. If we don’t do any work with our tangled messes, and just hand them over to the others involved, they react defensively as well.

Here’s the best suggestion for preparing to have a feedback conversation I’ve read in a long time, from the book Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson (Stanford Business Books, 2015).

Ask different questions to separate out the different pieces you wish to communicate:

  • Data: What actually happened in this situation? What evidence do you have? What are the facts that everyone would agree upon?

  • Feeling: How are you feeling about this? What is the strength of the emotion you’re feeling?

  • Impact: What is the impact of this behavior on the workplace? How do you know this?

I agree with the authors: these questions are harder to address than they look. On the surface, they are straightforward. But take any situation where you have strong opinions about what is right and what is wrong, and you’ll find it difficult to sort out emotional biases, assumptions, opinions and judgments from the raw facts.

Facts don’t come into our brains separate from opinions and judgments. What enters is often an emotion that gets linked to a couple of examples and tied together with a story about why the whole thing was objectionable in the first place.

And that is so true, isn’t it? We are story-making machines; our brains immediately form an opinion and we react to that story. Somebody else can be in the same situation and make a different story and react differently.

And that is why it is so important to treat feedback as a conversation with the other person to explore the facts and data. We often only have half the information but we think we have it all. So we go into a feedback conversation with a diagnosis of the problem and a solution in our quiver.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you and do you find yourself running into problems when you try to give fair feedback to someone? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.